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Pornography, Sex, and FeminismReview - Pornography, Sex, and Feminism
by Alan Soble
Prometheus Books, 2002
Review by Marcus Verhaegh
Jul 29th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 31)

            Soble’s Pornography, Sex, and Feminism is written in a brash, trash-talking mode the mirrors the text of pornography.  It certainly constitutes a descent from the Olympian standards of traditional academic writing.  Nonetheless, the book is pit-bull like in its desire to consider wide swaths of academic assessments of pornography, no matter how poor the arguments encountered within this discourse turn out to be.  And Soble convincingly makes clear that a great many such arguments turn out to be pretty poor indeed.

            Soble is to be thanked for having taken the time to read though all the trash he evidently needed to write his book, and for offering some of the most politically incorrect, masculinist arguments in favor of pornography that have ever made their way from the pen of a philosopher to a published work.  If it is argued that pornography dehumanizes, Soble will argue that the human is overrated anyways.  If a feminist critic claims that men will have negative reactions to viewing pornography, Soble will claim that most women writing on these subjects haven’t the foggiest idea of what is going on inside men’s minds when it comes to sex.  If the case is made that older women are ‘punished’ by a lack of sexual attention from their spouses, Soble argues that this is obviously not reason enough to keep these spouses from playing the field with younger women.  If Martha Nussbaum argues that valuable sex requires the context of a ‘normative history,’ Soble imagines gazing at her body during an APA conference;  and then goes on to dismiss Nussbaum as being akin to a ‘sexually protected young girl.’

            I think it is fairly clear that Soble’s book is a prime example of how not to write if you are working within academia.  Particularly when it comes to Nussbaum, he goes well over the top.  Nonetheless, his brash, ultra-masculine voice is a much needed, fascinating alternative to the feminist and ‘conservative’ humdrum over which he pores.  Moreover, he is also able give philosophical voice to the average views of the many countless male consumers of pornography.  Soble makes the case, in clear terms, that pornography is good because it is exciting, pleasurable, and useful in setting one’s sexual horizons.

Soble’s utilitarian case for pornography that is highly credible, but it is nonetheless quite marred by a lack of philosophical sophistication.  It appears that Soble just does not understand Kant, and even admits as much.  In his defense, it must be noted that Soble puts the blame on Kant.  However, his upfront approach on ‘Kantian ignorance’ fails to keep his broad, un-reasoned swipes at Kantian respect for the subject from sounding extremely insipid.  Moreover, his attacks on Kantian feminists are bizarre in being un-willing to accept that Kantian feminists do not have to re-establish the grounds of the moral law every time they reply upon Kant’s arguments.  Beyond such lacunas, and quite separate from them, is Soble’s apparent view that Kant’s false assumptions about sex somehow invalidate any use of his theory in this area.  ‘Kant felt that sex reduces us to the level of animals, therefore the moral law is a joke’ would seem to be Soble’s point of view here:  and I am not particularly exaggerating.  Soble’s work could have been immeasurable strengthen if Soble could have offered us a Kantian argument in favor of pornography, along with the utilitarian one Soble uses, in order to balance the Kantian criticism.  Soble could have shown that Kant’s system is able to embrace the position that, since pornography is exciting, pleasurable, and useful in setting one’s sexual horizons, it is a good worth having within culture.  The only specifically Kantian grounds for rejecting pornography would require conclusively showing that pornography involves treating its objects merely as objects (i.e., means), and not also as subjects (who are paid, occasionally titillated, granted rights, etc.).  Soble is un-willing to consider this case, preferring to wallow in anti-humanist sentiment.

Related to this un-willingness to consider Kant as a potential legitimator of sexual freedom is Soble’s un-willingness to take seriously the idea of ‘narrative history’ being attached to sex an ideal.  Just as Soble does not want to consider the niceties of going over what counts as treating someone merely as an end, he also does not want to consider that criticism of pornography might be made from the position that sexual relationships involving mutual recognition and narrative history might both have a great deal more to offer than the ‘cold fucks’ Soble is incessantly considering;  and also be extremely fragile affairs whose integrity can be corrupted by a Soble-style de-emphasis on non-hedonic standards in the selection of sex partners.  Soble does not seem to understand that Nussbaum’s restrained description of sexual relations is one made in order to form into being a contemporary sexual culture that gives Platonic eros and other forms of sublimation its place, rather than being, as Soble argues, the product of some sort of evident inexperience in sexual matters.

            The book is a kind of volcanic eruption:  it never was going to involve itself into the subtleties, as the point was to burst through the sick web of constraints our academic cultured has allowed—and, more recently, even furthered—when it comes to free expression on sex, and free sexual expression.  Soble is clearly keen to set alight both sides of this web, and there are limits to how much we can blame him when he stumbles in his rampages.  For it is, again, a deeply instructive rampage.

To give one example:  the section, ‘Chestler’s Complaint,’ provides a kind of slam-dunk criticism of ‘complaints’ that men are often interested in women much younger than them, and that pornography is often the source of this desire, in that it offers images of teen-aged girls and women in their early 20’s.  In responding to such ‘complaints,’ Soble demonstrates the absurdities involved in trying to give ‘equality-mad’ glosses to the existence of genetically-rooted male drives for women who are at ages of maximum fertility.  Soble helps along philosophical discourse on sex by pointing out the foolishness of trying to cover over serious theoretical consideration of such drives with banalities about Playboy causing father-daughter incest, or the like.  Again, Soble is to be thanked for having taken the time to consider a lot of trash, most of it the product of word-processors, not digital cameras.  For it does seem to me at least remotely possible that paternalist and feminist minded thinkers who might be tempted to deal out the sort of trash Soble took it upon himself to troll through may respond well to the treatment Soble prescribes, and think again—assuming, of course, that they don’t simply toss his book across the room a chapter in, which seems a distinct possibility.

            Feminists such as Chestler seem to want to point to the sexual consequences that follow from the lack of complementary, age-sensitive female drives about male fertility as consequences that an enlightened culture can address by throwing men and women into unisex jacket of ‘the relationship of equality.’  Soble is clear that  power equality is often neither particularly sexy nor particularly useful.  In making this case, Soble does more than inoculate us to anti-pornography dribble.  Soble touches a deep nerve in our contemporary culture, one which curls into quite different issues of gender:  e.g., the status of housewives v. working women, female participation in political structures, etc.  Thus, however down and dirty his manner of presentation may be, the fact remains that Soble has done quite useful work.


© 2002 Marcus Verhaegh



Marcus Verhaegh is a graduate student in the Philosophy PhD program at Emory University.


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